It may well be that later and fuller study will reveal that out of a consistently shabby policy on this issue the British Government’s attempted interference with relief supplies to helpless African children was the most scabrous act of all.
The narrative of what befell the emergency relief operation to the hungry children of Biafra in the latter half of 1969 provides a classic object lesson of what a hectoring, bullying dictatorship can get away with when confronted only by a civilized world unprepared to stand up for itself or for those standards of conduct which it has decreed to be inviolable.
From January until the end of May the relief flights of both Joint Church Aid (an amalgam of Caritas, World Council of Churches and Nord Church Aid) and the International Red Cross proceeded without incident. With the addition of eight extra planes sold for a peppercorn figure by the United States Government to Joint Church Aid and the Red Cross, tonnages of relief food were steadily increased.
During the peak months of March and April the combined tonnage entering Biafra by night came to a climax of nearly 400 tons per night, substantially more than the 300 tons estimated by the relief experts to be the minimum needed to halt kwashiorkor and undernourishment. With these tonnages, not only was this task achieved, but the spectre of famine and its attendant scourges began to recede.
The major part of the IRC operation was by this time flying out of Cotonou, the capital of Dahomey, Nigeria’s western neighbour, while a few IRC aircraft had restarted operations from Fernando Poo with the personal permission of President Enrico Macias who had intervened to settle the earlier unpleasantness. The JCA operation still flew out of São Tomé, which it had to itself.
Inside Biafra the prospect occasioned by the increase in relief foods was a heartening one. Over two million children and half a million adults were getting regular access to the protein-rich food they needed. Where a few months earlier travellers through the landscape had beheld silent, deserted compounds whose inhabitants lay exhausted and dying inside their huts, there were now to be seen groups of children playing in the sun, running to the roadside to yell and wave at a passing car. The sight of endless rows of rough cots in hundreds of sickbays up and down the country, crammed with the skeletal forms of dying children, became rarer, and even those children lining up in long queues at the three thousand feeding centre administered by the two relief organizations could be seen to be on the mend. Had nothing intervened, the prospects of May 1969 were that, whatever the military outcome of the struggle, millions of children would still be alive to have a chance at whatever life had in store for them; without the relief operation they would undoubtedly ha
Despite allegations that this relief food was going to the Biafran soldiery, the administrational chiefs of both distribution organizations, who kept a close check on all tonnages entering the country and being distributed, were satisfied that only an ‘acceptable’ proportion, about five per cent, of the tonnage was being lost or purloined in transit. In view of the remarkable circumstances of the airlift, the complete lack of mechanized cargo-handling devices at Uli, the fact that all was unloaded in darkness, etc., this figure was as low as human endeavour could bring it.
The Red Cross organizers, who were the only one of the two groups running a large operation among the hungry on the Nigerian side of the firing line, estimated that the loss-and-misappropriation figure was higher in Nigeria than in Biafra. This was partly due to the efficiency of the handling and distribution system in Biafra, partly because the supply lines between the point of entry and the point of consumption were so much shorter.
The JCA operation had the advantage of a comprehensive infrastructure of European missionaries already on the spot – eighty Irish priests and fifty Irish nuns working for Caritas, and twenty-seven missionaries and twenty imported volunteers working for the World Council of Churches. These Europeans, most of whom had an intimate knowledge of the country and the people, were able to provide personal supervision at every level and prevent all but the most occasional misappropriation. The Red Cross, although it had to build its own distributing organization, also imported enough volunteers to provide intensive supervision. Nord Church Aid, the third of the consortium that composed JCA, having no distributing structure on the ground, wisely did not try to compete with the Catholic and Protestant churches in setting up their own network inside Biafra, but instead ran the airlift, and did it with brilliant efficiency.
Throughout these five months the only thing to mar the importation of food was the nightly activities of a Nigerian Dakota freighter, converted into a bomber and flown by a South African mercenary. This bomber regularly overflew Uli in the hours of darkness, dropping bombs at random, while its pilot baited the relief crews over the R/T, nicknaming himself ‘Genocide’ and threatening them with what would befall them if they tried to land.
His bombs, however, never hit a relief plane or any of the aircrew while they were on the ground, and he had only nuisance value. As Uli was still being used as the airport by which arms were imported into Biafra, no one could fairly say that it was not a military target, and the relief agencies never claimed this.
In late May Count Von Rosen’s Minicons went into operation and, in four successive raids on the Federal-held airports of Enugu, Benin, Calabar and Port Harcourt, destroyed most of the operational MiGs and Ilyushins of the Nigerian Air Force. The bomber of Mr Genocide was also destroyed on the ground. The response by Russia was rapid.
On Monday 2 June, while landing at Uli, Australian relief pilot Captain Vernon Polley, working for JCA, was strafed by two MiGs flying in close formation. They came out of the night sky ahead of him while the airport lights were on, and each let rip a short burst of cannon fire. The next second they were gone, screaming over the tail of the freighter and off into the darkness. Captain Polley’s DC-6 was riddled from stem to stern, although luckily no one was hurt.
A repair crew was flown out from São Tomé the same night, and through the next day they worked on the freighter under camouflage to get it back into flying condition. On Tuesday night Captain Polley, flying alone, brought the limping DC-6 back to São Tomé. The lesson of Monday night was not slow in coming home to the relief pilots. To strafe an illuminated target while flying out of darkness does not require a fully equipped night fighter, but it does require piloting of considerable skill.
Flying a day fighter at night is standard practice, since all fighters are equipped with night-flying instruments and homing devices. But the skill of the gunnery indicated that the pilots concerned were a far cry from the useless Egyptian pilots who had flown for the Nigerians up till then, but who had never done a night mission.
When diving at night towards an illuminated target, the fighter pilot will temporarily lose some of his night vision, even with a tinted eyeshade, as he gazes into the illuminated area. To dive to within eighty feet of the ground and fire with pinpoint accuracy, to do so in tight formation with another fighter flying alongside at over 500 m.p.h., to risk having to pull out blind at a split second’s notice if the lights should go out – all these require pilots of considerable skill, with an intimate knowledge of their aircraft and their squadron colleague on the wingtip. Such expertise is not learned in a few hours, nor possessed by the Egyptians. Therefore somebody new was flying for the Nigerians.
The Sunday Telegraph broke the story on 22 June; the new pilots were half a dozen East Germans sent down at the behest of the Russians. Ten days later the West German Government’s deputy spokesman, Herr Konrad Ahlers, said that West German intelligence had confirmed that there were East Germans flying for Nigeria. Yet the fact that the so-called ‘Federal Air Force’ was in fact an amalgam of Russians, East Germans, Egyptians and mercenaries elicited little interest from the governments of the West and continued to be referred to as ‘the Nigerian Air Force’.
Before this, the planes themselves, flying by day, had been identified in the skies over Biafra. They were MiG 19s, considerably more modern than the previous MiG 15s and 17s hitherto flown by the Egyptians.
Despite the increasing risk of being hit on the ground, the pilots of both the International Red Cross and JCA elected to continue flying in the relief food. They stipulated that the lights of Uli should only be switched on for landing at the very last second, to shorten the time the airstrip would be illuminated, and switched off on command from the landing pilot when his speed along the runway was slow enough to enable him to come to a halt in darkness without mishap. Take-offs from then on were by aircraft headlights only.
The idea worked. Although the MiG 19s continued to strafe the airport whenever they could find it in the darkness, they never hit another relief plane. Listeners on the ground waited until the whine of the jets was heard far away, then bade the pilot begin coming down the approach glide path. At the last second the lights flashed on; high above, the jets wheeled and dived, but before they could get into range the lights went off and they were forced to pull out in raking climbs to avoid a smash into the ground. They continued to spray the area where they thought the aircraft was with cannon and rocket fire, but were usually wild.
On Thursday 5 June the Federal Air Force really excelled itself. A MiG 17 shot down in broad daylight a clearly marked Red Cross relief plane in cold blood. In terms both of the written laws of the Geneva Convention on War and the unwritten laws of the world of flying, this act was just about as far as an Air Force can go. The pilot of the Red Cross DC-6 was an American veteran of the Second World War and Korea, Captain David Brown.
Almost incredibly, some British journalists sought to justify or mitigate the act. One, writing in a Sunday newspaper some days later, reported that the fighter pilot in a long R/T conversation with Captain Brown had repeatedly told him to land at a Nigerian airfield and only shot him down when he persistently refused to do so. This was arrant nonsense, for three reasons:
1. A MiG 17 fighter communicates with its own ground base or other fighters in the air on a series of fixed-crystal wavelengths available to its own channel selector. It cannot ‘sweep the bands’ as can the radio operator of a freighter aircraft who has at his disposal a more versatile radio set. It was the habit of the pilots of the Red Cross, and those of the JCA, to keep changing their operating wavelengths on a daily basis, agreed beforehand with their own control tower. On not one recorded occasion did the relief pilots ever find themselves on the same channel as the Nigerian fighter pilots. There is moreover no known system of hand signals by which a pilot flying on the wingtip of another aircraft may instruct the pilot of the intercepted plane to change over to his own channel so that voice communication can take place
. Even had there been such a system of hand signals, it would be extremely doubtful whether the freighter’s radio operator could have found the MiG’s wavelength.
2. There does exist an internationally known system of hand signals by which a pilot may signal across the intervening air to another pilot that he has been intercepted and should do what he is told. This system is occasionally used when an aircraft is sent aloft to ‘shepherd’ to safety a plane which has lost its radio. The system has also been used by fighters to require an intercepted transport aircraft to land at a designated airfield of the fighter pilot’s choice – for example in the case of airliners that have strayed out of the Berlin air corridors and been intercepted by Soviet MiGs. A freighter who, having been intercepted and signalled to divert to another airfield, refuses to do so, particularly when his interceptor is an armed fighter, would have to be a lunatic or a suicide case. Captain Brown was neither. There is an adage in flying: ‘There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.’ Captain Brown was an old pilot with a quarter of a century of flying behind him. He knew the procedures and he knew the drill. Had he landed as instructed at Port Harcourt, for example, his cargo would have been proved to be a harmless ten tons of milk powder and stockfish, and after a period of detention his own government or the International Red Cross would have secured his release. He knew this.
3. It is inconceivable that a pilot of his experience should have been intercepted, and ordered to land at an airfield designated by the fighter pilot, without breathing a word of what happened to his own control tower. To a pilot it is as clear as day that if such an interception took place, the first action would be to inform one’s own control tower what had happened, and what action one was taking. So far as the listeners at Fernando Poo were concerned, Captain Brown never left his own frequency linking him with Fernando Poo control tower.
What really happened was this. At 5.38 p.m. on that Thursday evening Captain Brown took off from Fernando Poo with his cargo. Accompanying him was his crew of two Swedes, co-pilot and flight engineer, and a Norwegian loadmaster in the back. His aircraft was a DC-6 painted white from stem to stern. On the upper and lower surfaces of each wing were painted two large red crosses, each eight feet across. Other red crosses adorned each side of the fuselage at the mid-section, and each side of the tail fin. It would have been almost impossible to mark an aircraft more distinctively.
If he made any mistake it was in leaving too early for Biafra. The sky was a brilliant blue, without a cloud, and the sun was still well above the horizon. It was habitual for planes leaving São Tomé to depart at this hour, for with the longer journey they only came over the Biafran coast after 7 p.m., that is, after dark. Dusk is very short in Africa. The light starts fading in June around 6.30 and by 7 p.m. it is dark. But with the much shorter journey (only sixty miles) from Fernando Poo to the coast, he came over the coast about 6 o’clock in brilliant daylight.
It was an error, although it is easy to be wise after the event. His concern, like that of all pilots, was to get as many shuttles as possible to and from Uli into one night. Three other Fernando Poo relief planes were aloft at the same time.